Sreelatha Menon: Barefoot cops

Sreelatha Menon: Barefoot cops

From Andhra Pradesh’s Cobra squads to Bihar’s special police officers, the trend of recruiting poorly-paid, semi-literate people to fight Naxalites is leading to new forms of abuse.

Heard of Cobra squads? They are the ad hoc police in Andhra Pradesh, hired to target Naxalites. These squads have gained notoriety for acting as the state government’s hitmen, used to get rid of people on the government’s hitlist.

They are described as members of a mafia gang, called Black Cobra, which keeps issuing death lists in the media and proceeds to brutally finish those on the lists.

In Chhattisgarh, this work is taken over by SPOs, or special police officers, who in many cases are teenagers — tribal boys and girls in the Naxal-infested northern and southern districts of the state. They are paid a meagre Rs 1,500 a month and their lives are so worthless in the eyes of the government that it does not mind losing any number of them. And they are desperate to earn and so many in number that the areas they live in are a fertile ground for recruitment.

Bihar has, this year, introduced a new law, the Bihar Police Act, 2007, in response to last year’s call by the home ministry that the state respond to the Naxal menace by replicating the Andhra model. The new law empowers the Bihar government to recruit quasi-cops. So just as we have ad hoc semi-literate teachers, ad hoc barefoot doctors, and any variety of barefoot functionaries the government loves to provide to cut costs, the country is now rich in bare-foot cops as well.

The reason is not known, except that they come cheap as they are poor and can be easily turned into powder for the guns to target adversaries, in this case Naxalites.

When the British recruited Indians to fight their wars overseas, it was understandable. Loss of Indian lives didn’t matter much to the British. But why would a state push its untrained citizens to battle its own criminal elements rather than have a proper force to deal with the situation, which needs special socio-economic measures?

The Second Administrative Reforms Commission chaired by Veerappa Moily winks at this abuse of law by various states in the name of enforcing law. Its recent report on public order is silent on this.

In Chhattisgarh, the reason cited is shortage of police force and other resources. But for the public in such states, the police force becomes further alienated. So if a doctor in Bastar is forced to operate on a Naxalite, he dare not let the matter out, lest he be arrested too. Here, the law enforcement machinery works in black and white. It is the rule of terror on people who are already the victims of terrorism.

The Moily report on public order recommends an alternative: direct central deployment of forces. Moily says this should be done only when pubic order is under threat and even when the state does not want central intervention. Gujarat- and Ayodhya-like situations are cited as examples. But again, there is hardly any guarantee against abuse.

Moily and his team have also called for a kinder, gentler police and to make policing a service. The report, released last week, even talks of doing away with constables. It wants only graduate cops to raise the morale of the police. It is unclear how increasing the qualification for joining the police can raise the morale and if removing non-graduate constables will not remove the ability of policemen to connect with the people.

There is again no guarantee that it would stop states from recruiting quasi-cops.

Business Standard

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